To listen well, get curious

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A common piece of interacting-with-people advice goes: “often when people complain, they don’t want help, they just want you to listen!”

For instance, Nonviolent Communication: Nonviolent Communication, ch. 7.

It is often frustrating for someone needing empathy to have us assume that they want reassurance or “fix-it” advice.

Active Listening: Active Listening, p. 2

Similarly, advice and information are almost always seen as efforts to change a person and thus serve as barriers to his self-expression and the development of a creative relationship.

You can find similar advice in most books on relationships, people management, etc.

This always used to seem silly to me. If I complain at my partner and she “just listens,” I’ve accomplished nothing except maybe made her empathetically sad. When I complain at people, I want results, not to grouse into the void! Empirically, I did notice that I usually got better results from listening than from giving advice. So I inferred that this advice was true for other people, but not me, because other people didn’t actually want to fix their problems.

Frequently the “just listen” advice comes with tactical tips, like “reflect what people said back to you to prove that you’re listening.” For instance, consider these example dialogues from Nonviolent Communication:§ Nonviolent Communication, Chapter 7, Exercise 5.5, 5.6 and solutions.

Person A: How could you say a thing like that to me?

Person B: Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked me to agree to do what you requested?

Or:

Person A: I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need him.

Person B: So you’re feeling furious because you would like him to be around more than he is?

I say this with great respect for Nonviolent Communication, but these sound like a 1970s-era chatbot. If I were Person A in either of these dialogues my next line would be “yes, you dingbat—can you turn the nonviolence down a couple notches?” I’d feel alienated knowing that someone is going through their NVC checklist on me.


Recently, I realized why people keep giving this weird-seeming advice. Good listeners do often reflect words back—but not because they read it in a book somewhere. Rather, it’s cargo cult advice: it teaches you to imitate the surface appearance of good listening, but misses what’s actually important, the thing that’s generating that surface appearance.

The generator is curiosity.

When I’ve listened the most effectively to people, it’s because I was intensely curious—I was trying to build a detailed, precise understanding of what was going on in their head. When a friend says, “I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need him,” that one sentence has a huge amount underneath. How often does she need him? What does she need him for? Why isn’t he around? Have they talked about it? If so, what did he say? If not, why not?

It turns out that reality has a surprising amount of detail, and those details can matter a lot to figuring out what the root problem or best solution is. So if I want to help, I can’t treat those details as a black box: I need to open it up and see the gears inside. Otherwise, anything I suggest will be wrong—or even if it’s right, I won’t have enough “shared language” with my friend for it to land correctly.

Some stories from recent memory:

In each case, the “helper” tried to learn about the “complainer’s” reality in as much detail as possible—not just the problem, but the whole person and whatever else was behind the immediate issue. And that’s what made it possible for them to actually help.

It often feels like I understand enough to be helpful without knowing all those details. But when I think that, I’m usually wrong: I end up giving bad advice, based on bad assumptions, and the person I’m talking to ends up having to do a bunch of work to argue with me and correct my bad assumptions. That makes the conversation feel disfluent and adversarial instead of collaborative.

It turns out this is a really common failure mode of helping-conversations, which is what I think generates the old saw at the beginning of this post, that “sometimes people don’t want help, just to be listened to.”

But I think that’s actually too nice to the helper, and uncharitable to the complainer (in that it assumes they weirdly don’t care about solving their problem). What’s really going on is probably that your advice is bad, because you didn’t really listen, because you weren’t curious enough.


When I’m curious about what someone’s saying, I often do repeat things back to them in my own words. But it’s because I’m genuinely curious, not because I’m checking off the “reflect words” box in my “be a good listener” checklist. That means I do it in a way that sounds like my natural speech, instead of mimicking them like a chatbot.

When done this way, reflective listening feels validating rather than alienating. It’s a way of demonstrating that I care a lot about what someone has to say. Putting their idea into my own words shows them that I’ve fully digested it, and helps us establish a shared language in which to talk about it. That, in turn, makes the conversation fluent and collaborative, rather than a zigzag of bad assumptions and corrections.

So the right advice isn’t “listen harder and repeat everything back”—you won’t be genuine if you’re just imitating the surface appearance of a good listener. Instead, be humble and get curious! Remind yourself that there’s a ton of detail behind whatever you’re hearing, and try to internalize all of it that you can. Once you’ve done that, your advice will be more likely hit the mark, and you’ll be able to communicate it clearly.

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Monika Wahi

I agree with your skepticism about “active listening”, but as a manager, I find it is a totally useful skill when your employee or colleague is freaking out (e.g., just been abused, just found out bad news about loved one, etc.).

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eli

thanks! I found this very helpful

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eli

thanks! I found this very helpful

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Nat Kuhn

Great post, Ben! When I started medical school we were offered a several-hour workshop on “micro-counseling,” which stressed reflective listening. As a budding psychiatrist I felt that this was “baby stuff” and was impatient to get on to the “real stuff,” interpretation. And you are absolutely right that it usually taught in a mechanical way that would certainly feel counter-empathic to me and lots of other people.

What I discovered after a lot of experience, is that good reflective listening—like what you describe—is actually extremely powerfulbut not at all easy. So you’ve certainly got that right IMO.

Two other things about reflective listening: (a) sometimes what I hear someone saying is not actually what they’re saying, or not what they mean, so repeating it back is part of an important feedback loop in clarify what the “complainer” is saying; (b) sometimes it is what they mean, but hearing it reflected back to them helps them realize that there is some discrepancy with other beliefs/values/etc. It is much more helpful when they hear it in more-or-less their own words, with their own ears, rather than me telling them about what I perceive as a discrepancy.

Great job!

Tracy OBrien

wonderful response!!

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john

don’t listen, don’t give anyone the authority. Only listen to allah

Monika

But isn’t listening to Allah still listening?

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Michele

Totally true. I’ve come to the conclusion that showing authentic curiosity towards what other people are saying is really difficult, but you can train yourself step by step.

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